When I was growing up in Ohio in the 1950s, one of the biggest stories in the news was the execution of the Soviet atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They had been convicted of helping spirit scientific details about the construction of the atomic bomb from American scientists and engineers to KGB officers stationed in New York.
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Ironically, as we learn in Howard Blum’s new book, In the Enemy’s House, they personally had little or nothing to do with funneling that information to the Soviet Union. Julius was involved because he ran a spy ring that included couriers who had been in contact with some of the nuclear scientists. Though Ethel was aware of her husband’s role, she herself played no active part in the affair. The man most clearly responsible for providing the Soviet Union with information about how to build an atomic bomb was a German emigré scientist named Klaus Fuchs, who was convicted and imprisoned in Britain in 1950.
Blum’s book is subtitled The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies. That’s accurate. The central characters in this engrossing account are FBI agent Bob Lamphere and Meredith Gardner, a polyglot linguist widely regarded as a genius who worked as a codebreaker for the forerunner of the NSA.
In the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies by Howard Blum (2018) 336 pages ★★★★☆
Two very unlikely friends
This is “a story of two very different and very unlikely friends who had teamed up to chase down the most consequential spy ring in American history . . . one the prideful brawler and elbow-on-the-bar carouser, the other the devotee of unfathomable puzzles who hid behind an armor of social inhibition.”
Gardner’s contribution was to break the unbreakable Soviet diplomatic code, which was far more sophisticated and complex than either the much-better-known German Enigma or Japanese Purple codes, which had been broken by others before and during World War II. (The Soviet code was, in fact, unbreakable; Gardner succeeded only because he gained access to documents that provided a route in.) Lamphere turned Gardner’s discoveries into actionable investigations.
Blum also reports extensively on the Soviet side of the story, focusing on the prominent Soviet spymaster Alexander (“Sasha”) Feklisov.
A seven-year investigation
Lamphere and Gardner worked together for seven years, from shortly after the conclusion of World War II until the Rosenbergs were sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing prison in 1953. Interestingly, both men were guilt-stricken over the results of their work. Neither had wanted either of the two to be executed, and both felt strongly that it was wrong to kill Ethel Rosenberg for what at best was a tangential connection to the conspiracy.
Throughout In the Enemy’s House, Blum directly quotes Lamphere, Gardner, Feliksov, and several others and relates their thoughts at the time. In a Note on Sources at the conclusion of the book, the author insists “they are products of the historical record and my research. They can be substantiated by official government records, documents, and reports; bookshelves filled with volumes of Cold War histories; memoirs; personal notebooks; contemporaneous newspaper reports; previously transcribed conversations; and, not least, lengthy interviews I conducted with the close relatives of the main actors in this story (Bob Lamphere and Meredith Gardner are deceased).” The result is that Blum manages to make the story read like a novel. It’s a police procedural translated into the realm of espionage.
Howard Blum, formerly a reporter for the Village Voice and the New York Times, is the author of twelve previous nonfiction books.
For further reading
I’ve also reviewed Howard Blum’s Night of the Assassins: The Untold Story of Hitler’s Plot to Kill FDR, Churchill, and Stalin (The startling Nazi plot to kill FDR, Churchill, and Stalin) and The Spy Who Knew Too Much: An Ex-CIA Officer’s Quest Through a Legacy of Betrayal (Unmasking the mole in the CIA).
This is one of the many good nonfiction books about national security reviewed here.
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